Meet PCC’s ‘Mr. Aloha’
The Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC) has hosted thousands of VIPs since we opened in 1963 — kings, queens, presidents, diplomats, dignitaries, movie stars, sports celebrities, church and government leaders, business executives, military leaders and many more.
And we’ve been very fortunate over the past approximately 20 of those years to have had the perfect “Mr. Aloha” greet and escort those guests — Robert “Bobby” Akoi, one of our most senior employees who “graduated” from the Polynesian Cultural Center on July 12, 2019 when he retired after serving here for a total of 42 years.
A Hawaiian man originally from Keaukaha (near Hilo) on the Big Island, Akoi enrolled at Brigham Young University–Hawaii (BYU-H) in the 1970s, where he played on the men’s volleyball team and won All-American honors. He performed with the university’s traveling troupe and as with thousands of other BYU–H students, worked part-time at the Center as a dancer, musician and a Japanese-speaking tour guide. Akoi graduated from BYU–H in 1980 with a degree in travel industry management, and after working as a music resource teacher back in Keaukaha for several years, the Center hired him to work fulltime in 1983.
In his earlier full-time years here, Akoi worked in the Hawaiian and former Marquesan Villages, the islands administration office, as a corporate trainer and in other positions. On the side he sang professionally in Waikiki and is widely known in the area as a member of the “singing bishops” quartet, along with fellow Hawaiian PCC retirees Cy Bridges, Harry Brown and Bobby’s brother, Jay Akoi (each of whom has served as voluntary bishops of local church congregations).
Learning from the master
The late Tausilinu’u “Uncle David” Hannemann, the quintessential host for PCC’s VIP guests for many years, started Akoi on the path to outstanding Polynesian protocol at the Center.
“He taught me five critical components about hosting VIPs,” Akoi recalled. They include appropriate greetings with leis and other special arrangements, including cultural protocol in the case of island leaders; a selection of gifts from the PCC; special feasting; “and conversational do’s and don’ts — what we should say and how we should act around these guests.”
Hannemann retired in 1995 to voluntarily serve as president of the Laie Hawaii Temple, and Akoi was next in line to coordinate the visit of the Gordon B. Hinckley, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the organization that founded the PCC and nearby BYU-Hawaii). President Hinckley spent several days in Laie for the PCC’s 40th anniversary.
“I remembered how terrified I was,” Akoi admitted.” I prayed hard the night before his visit and told myself, don’t say anything. Let the president do all the talking. Just smile big the whole time.”
Akoi’s plan worked well. During a special luncheon, President Hinckley asked about the PCC’s optional Laie Tour in conjunction with the Laie Temple Visitors Center.
“I’m so glad I had reviewed the Visitor Center attendance figures a couple of days before,” Akoi said. I had learned to always be prepared for who is coming. Do a background check on their family, areas of responsibility, what foods perhaps they cannot eat, allergies to lei flowers, and so forth. Also, depending on the VIP, to stay away from political and religious conversation. Other than that, protocol is purely common-sense stuff.”
Memorable VIP visitors
Asked if any particular VIP visitors stick out in his mind, Akoi listed several.
■ When a delegation from the People’s Republic of China Religious Research Center came to the PCC about 10 years ago on the last full day of a visit to Latter-day Saint Church headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah, he recalled.
“I remember how happy they were the whole day, smiling and cheering in every village. At a special dinner that evening in the Samoan chief’s house, their director said he had already read two of our scriptural books. He said that you people have the same beliefs as China. That is great to see. We believe in families!
“Everyone at the dinner [was] touched by the ˈAloha spirit. As they departed the next day, all ten of them had tears streaming down their faces like they didn’t want to go home. We knew then we did the best we could.”
■ Another special visitor from the People’s Republic of China, Qizhen Zhu, former Chinese Ambassador to the U.S., also recognized “the spirit of ˈAloha” at the Polynesian Cultural Center.
He said, “[It is] the spirit of love, the spirit of mutual understanding, the spirit of living in harmony and peace. This is something I think the Polynesian Cultural Center is now clearly manifesting and the effect of that impact will go far beyond the Center itself.”
■ The late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia sent the following thank-you note: “Many thanks for the elegant and stimulating luncheon, and for the red-carpet tour of the Polynesian Cultural Center. We had a wonderful time — and no small part of it was getting to meet some of the participants (student and nonstudent) who make the Center such a dynamic success. May it continue to prosper.”
■ Akoi reported he was also impressed when two-time Academy Award-winning movie star Anthony Quinn told his young daughter, who had freely grabbed some dolls and toys from the gift shop aisles, “I want you to put all those toys back. You’ll have to earn them.”
PCC colleagues praise ‘Uncle Bobby’
Seamus Fitzgerald, a former Maori cultural ambassador who now works in human resources, presented “Uncle Bobby” with a toki — a traditional adze or axe that “today is a symbol of building relationships, of building people, of building character.” He also thanked the Akoi family “for sharing your dad, your ‘papa’ with us.”
Eric Workman, PCC executive vice president of marketing, praised the style and dignity with which Akoi treated so many people. “Bobby, we will do our best to keep the aloha that you have presented so wonderfully over so many decades. We love you and will remember your examples.”
PCC Tongan Village manager, Alamoti Taumoepeau, presented Akoi with an ike tool, the wooden mallet Tongans use to flatten bark into tapa cloth.
“In many of our cultural practices, the ike is a symbol of life and vitality,” Taumoepeau said. The grooves in the mallet represent “the many people we come into contact in our lives, like the many people Bobby has influenced and shaped — like he has mine.”
Delsa Atoa Moe, speaking on behalf of PCC president and CEO Alfred Grace, who was off-island, recalled she was assigned to present leis to another Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints VIP.
“He came out of the van and bypassed me completely, going straight to Bobby. They talked story, discussed how’s the family, and I just stood there. It was clear to me the most important person there to greet him was long-time friend Bobby Akoi.”
“VIPs who come frequently to PCC, they call him directly,” Moe continued. “That’s how strong his relationships are. This was not just a job to Bobby. He truly loves the people he worked with — and not just the VIPs and heads of state, but even the student workers.”
Akoi’s ‘graduation’ send-offs
The PCC hosted Akoi at a “graduation” party in the Hale Aloha venue, again showering him with VIP treatment, a feast, more accolades and gifts.
In his response during the morning event, Akoi thanked his wife, Hiromi: “She has supported and encouraged me throughout the years. I’m grateful for my children, too. I know that at times they have sacrificed without having a dad at their activities because my job often took me from mornings until after the night show.”
Akoi also recognized his mother, Rhea Akoi, 92, who came from Hilo for his retirement celebration.
“It’s a miracle that she’s here,” he said. “All my siblings are also here today.”
He added he and his wife plan to do some travelling during the first year of his retirement, starting by visiting family in Asia and on the US mainland.”
They also “plan on serving a Latter-day Saint senior mission in our second year of retirement.”
Story and photo by Mike Foley, who has been associated with the Polynesian Cultural Center for over 50 years. He had a long career in marketing communications, PR, journalism and university education before becoming a full-time freelance writer and digital media specialist in 2002. Foley learned to speak fluent Samoan as a Latter-day Saint missionary before moving to Laie in 1967, and he still does. He has traveled extensively over the years throughout Polynesia, other Pacific islands and Asia. Though nearly retired now, Foley continues to contribute to PCC and a select few other media.